Tips, tricks, adventures and reasons for winter cycling

As an avid cyclist in the spring, summer and fall, I never seriously thought about winter cycling. 

However, after seeing what I would consider hardcore cyclists battling snow and sleet, and facing the same weather-related traffic snarls as their car counterparts, I sat down with a couple Edmonton cyclists who use this form of transportation all year long.

This is part one in a two-part series. Read part two.

Bruce MacPherson, the Recumbent Cyclist
Bruce MacPherson, the Recumbent Cyclist.

Bruce MacPherson, the Recumbent Tricyclist

Are you from Edmonton? Yes.

What kind of bike do you ride? A recumbent tricycle. (Editor’s note: A recumbent tricycle is similar to a recumbent bicycle but has three wheels instead of two; both types of recumbents place the rider in a reclining position.)

Where did you get your bike from? I got it from a place in Bentley, Alta., that specializes in recumbents but there’s also a guy in Leduc who will order them in.

When did you first start winter cycling? I did it a little bit (about three years) in the early ’90s because my wife and I only had one car. I only had about 17 blocks to ride to work, and I didn’t want to strand my wife with little kids and no car. I rode a regular (not recumbent) bike at the time and had a lot of trouble with slipping and falling over. That’s what brought that three-year period to an end. What got me winter cycling again is that I remembered enjoying it, and I had seen the occasional recumbent tricycle in town. I finally bought myself a recumbent tricycle in 2012, and the no. 1 reason I bought it is because it doesn’t fall over. The centre of gravity of a recumbent is so much lower and more stable. It is not impossible to trip, but way less likely and less unpredictable.

What do you like or dislike about winter cycling? I ride for many reasons, but mainly to alleviate depression symptoms — fresh air and sunlight also help with sleep, and other symptoms of depression. I also dislike if there’s a lot of granular snow. Frozen crusty snow on roads and unplowed trails can be difficult to manoeuvre on.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about winter cycling? People think you’re going to freeze but I find the biggest problem is sweat. Core warmth is never a problem for me. If you are going to winter cycle, you should dress in layers.

What are some funny encounters you have had as a winter cyclist? Animals are the funniest encounters I’ve had on a recumbent. I will sometimes run across rabbits, the occasional coyote and people’s pets. They have no clue what I am, and when I approach them, you can see their gears turning because they have no previous data or encounters with a recumbent cyclist. Small rabbits will stare at you until you come quite close, and then they get surprised and jump up.

What are some scary encounters you have had as a winter cyclist? I honestly have never had a serious problem with traffic. The most stressful thing that’s happened is getting stuck when trying to get to work on time, or when there’s been heavy snow. When there’s a lot of snow and then it melts, and that process takes place several times in a row, there will be lots of ruts and hard banks. Otherwise, I honestly haven’t had a scary encounter with traffic because visibility is so much better on a tricycle than on a bicycle. My tricycle has a huge rearview mirror on the left side, and the position allows way more time to look around. On the other hand, a bicycle rider has to worry every second about his balance.

For someone who has never done any winter cycling before, what would you advise? To give yourself lots of time and invest in some decent outerwear. I would recommend investing in a good set of gloves, tuque and probably goggles. People tell me that fat tire bicycles solve a lot of traction problems and that may be the case. I have zero experience with them. For myself, I prefer a bike that can keep up with traffic when the pavement is dry and that I can ride all year round with little modification.

What would you say are the key differences between summer and winter cycling? Traction — you do need to give yourself more time in the winter. 

How would you describe the winter cycling community in Edmonton? It’s small but hardcore. There is the Edmonton Bicycle Commuters Society (EBC) and YEGBike Facebook group (at least half of the YEGBike people are winter riders).

Can you tell me about some cycling events that occur in Edmonton in the winter? EBC organizes some winter events. The YEGBike Facebook group is a relatively new group, and they will sometimes organize Coffee Fridays where people will bring little stoves to make coffee, tea or hot chocolate. They often meet at the Strathcona Gazebo or Ezio Faraone Park. In November, there are some individuals who organize a Christmas Turkey Drop for B’s Diner, which serves Christmas dinner to less fortunate Edmontonions. Essentially, we cycle with turkeys on our bikes and drop them off at B’s Diner.

How often do you winter cycle? Two to four times a week. I cycle an average of 10 km one way. 

What routes would you say are the most conducive to winter cycling? I love the Mill Creek Ravine Trail!!

If you could spread one message about winter cycling, what would it be? That it helps so many things. It not only helps get your head and health outside in the winter, but it takes care of the need for a health club or any other exercise. It takes care of gas and a second car, and it helps circadian rhythms in sleep. So there’s a big payoff from such a basic thing. In the bigger picture, it helps climate change and car congestion, as well as coronary disease and parking congestion. I can list so many problems and in the answer column of all those problems you’ll find bikes and cycling. And I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been gobsmacked by beautiful scenes. You’re going fast enough to see a lot of scenery, but slow enough to really enjoy it. I love seeing Edmonton at all times of the day, especially sunrise and sunset. Many people glance at a winter cyclist, and think that it’s insane or crazy. Once you try it for a week, a lot of things you’ve thought are crazy aren’t actually crazy.

Alan Biking the River Valley Trails
Alan biking the river valley trails.

Alan Schietzsch, The Fatbike Cyclist

Are you from Edmonton? I have lived in and around Edmonton most of my life, after moving from England when I was 4.

When did you first start winter cycling? 1975. Hey. I’m in my 50s.

What prompted you to try winter cycling? My friends were doing it so I wanted to join in the fun too.

What do you like or dislike about winter cycling? It turns winter from an unpleasant thing into a positive adventure.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about winter cycling? That it’s cold. You generate a ton of body heat!

What are some funny encounters you have had as a winter cyclist? Falling in a slow motion pirouette into a soft snowbank in front of my friends. We laughed so much!

What are some scary encounters you have had as a winter cyclist? I haven’t really found anything scary about it.

For someone who has never done any winter cycling before, what would you advise? Dress your hands and feet warmly, you’ll be super warm in a few minutes of pedaling and enjoy a new experience.

What would you say are the key differences between summer and winter cycling? Winter is way more forgiving — if you ever fall, instead of hard pavement or ground, you just slide or land in snow.

Why do you choose to winter cycle? It’s just like skiing or skating, and keeps me healthy and happy instead of feeling like hiding inside.

How would you describe the winter cycling community in Edmonton? Such positive and interesting nice people. Shared experiences quickly form a bond of friendship too.

What are some of the events that cater to winter cyclists in Edmonton? There are “coffee outside” meet-ups some Friday mornings, and even a fun series for folks who like to “race” — which is hilarious in snow! For more information, you can check out the upcoming 45NRTH Fatbike Triple Crown. And many of us enjoy giving back — for the last 13 years, B’s Diner on Whyte  has served a Christmas dinner for about 300 less fortunate Edmonton citizens, so what we do is take food donations on our bikes to B’s Diner. With the recent economy, there’s a need to serve up to 500 hungry people, and B’s Diner is receiving less donations than usual. Also, #yegbike is a fun crew of local cyclists who met online. A bunch of us started talking about how we could give something back to the communities we ride through, and that led to our Two Wheels Good project. The motto of the Two Wheels Good project is that, we bike outside by choice. We can afford to eat and stay warm. That’s not true for everyone we see during our rides, so we’re excited to deliver turkeys to B’s to keep our fellow Edmontonians warm and well fed.

Can you talk a bit about the equipment that’s required for winter cycling? Mostly just wear whatever you’d wear to go out for a walk, skate or ski. If you like it, you may decide to get grippy or studied tires, or even a fat bike that can go down amazing secret trails. And if you get lights, the quiet evenings are like travelling in a sparkling wonderland.

How often do you winter cycle? Usually about four to five times a week.

What are the distances you typically ride? From a few blocks to a store, to 30 km on the gorgeous river trails on weekends.

What are the benefits you see to winter cycling? It makes me feel good, and in spring I’m in decent shape instead of being the jelly-belly I turn into when I avoid going outside.

What are your favourite routes for winter cycling? The river valley from Telus Field east to Goldbar Park is my go-to. It’s pretty, easy and quick to access, and there are lots of destinations and sights along the way.

If you could spread one message about winter cycling, what would it be? If you hate winter, this is the easiest way to turn it into fun that you will look forward to.